The searchlights shone, the crowds teemed and a movie unspooled again Thursday night at North Baltimore's Senator Theatre, as the city's most beloved cinema house, refreshed and expanded, reopened after 18 months of darkness.
And the crowd loved it, with people smiling as they scanned the restored mosaic encircling the lobby, wandered through the Senator's three new screening rooms and posed for pictures inside the restored 700-seat main theater.
"Are you kidding? This is amazing, beautiful," said native-son director John Waters, whose 1988 film "Hairspray" was the (re)opening night attraction. "We've never had anything like this before."
Thursday night's grand return of Baltimore's premier cinema showcase, a 74-year-old Art Deco jewel gleaming anew after a $3.5 million renovation and expansion project, brought out celebrities and politicos, including Waters, Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Dietz, Emmy-winning casting director Pat Moran and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"It looks beautiful, doesn't it?" the mayor said, looking toward James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon, the theater's new owners. "I'm very proud to be here and very proud of what you've accomplished."
The crowd apparently agreed, giving the owners a prolonged ovation before the movie began.
The night, which began with a $40-per-ticket reception benefiting the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Pratt Contemporaries program, brought out hundreds of fans on a rainy evening — enough to fill the theater, and then some. Many said they were thrilled to again experience the joy of seeing a movie in the city's last remnant of days when it was a toss-up between what was more glamorous: the movies or the buildings in which they were shown.
Local filmmaker Patrick Storch, who's had his films screened at the old Senator and hopes to enjoy that privilege at the restored theater, stood in the middle of the lobby, craning his neck to see everything. He called the renovated Senator "awesome."
"This is what I always wanted this place to look like," he said. "They did a fantastic job."
The past four years have been tumultuous for the Senator, as its longtime owner lost the building to foreclosure, the city bought it at auction and then sold it to the new owners.
On Thursday night, Lyon said she was thrilled to be the steward of the theater's legacy.
"It's been a lot of work, but we're finally here," she said. "I'm extremely proud."
Opened in 1939, the Senator is the last remnant of the Durkee Theater chain, which once operated dozens of theaters in the Baltimore area. For 21 years, from 1988 to 2009, it was owned and operated by Tom Kiefaber, grandson of the chain's founder, Frank Durkee. After years of walking a financial tightrope, Kiefaber lost the theater to foreclosure. It was bought at auction by the city in July 2009 for $810,000.
The city, in turn, sold the theater last year for $500,000 to Charles Theatre operator Cusack and his daughter. The father-daughter pair have invested about $1 million in the renovations, with another $1.6 million coming from public loans and grants. A $425,000 Maryland Community Legacy grant and federal and state historic tax credits aided the construction.